Above him there was an inscription that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” Words from the 23rd chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.
Despite the capacity of art, poetry, and music to lend great expression to the profound realities of life, there is always still a deeper mystery which remains uncommunicated. We want to talk about love and life and who we are and what we dream of becoming, but we have trouble capturing all these things in their unlimited totality because of the limits of our humanity and the mediums of communication that are available to us. That hasn’t stopped people from trying to express themselves, however: famous artist Frida Kahlo created 55 self-portraits; Rembrandt crafted over 40 paintings, 31 etchings, and 7 drawings of himself; Vincent Van Gogh did over 30 self-portraits in a 3-year period. All of them would tell you that a single portrait simply fails to do justice to the boundless mystery and image of God that is reflected within the lives of us all. Similarly, the readings for today’s feast of Christ the King attempt to capture the understanding of who Jesus is by creating a collage of images and portraits. Each image in some way significantly reinterprets the concept of king, invests it with new meaning, and takes us deeper. Gathered together they create a kind of litany that extols the kingship of Christ.
The image of Shepherd and Commander from our first reading calls to mind the loving concern of Christ for those who place themselves under his care, who recognize his voice and follow him wherever he goes. Those responsible for the well-being of their people were often characterized as shepherds, representing a leader who is for and with the people and not removed from them. According to this metaphor, the kingly rule of Christ is characterized by tenderness, not by authoritarian power.
The image of the King of Israel is, in the reading from 2nd Samuel, a sign of universal rule. David was of the tribe of Judah and had been called to rule over the other tribes. At this point, David is being asked to extend his rule over people who were not his own. So it is with the Christ’s reign. God’s Kingship extends to people of all times and places.
The image of the invisible God from Colossians acclaims the divine origin of Jesus as the word made flesh. This image is extended by acclaiming Christ as the firstborn of all creation and the source of all created things, thus acknowledging both the sovereignty of Christ furthermore over all of creation besides and his importance as the model after which all things were fashioned. In other words, creation mirrors the image of Christ the King. This is but another reason for us to cherish creation and be good stewards of this earth.
The portrait of Christ as head of the body, the Church, underscores the intimacy and interrelationship that exist between Christ and all those who are joined to him through faith and baptism. Just as a body needs a head, so a head needs a body. This image challenges any idea of a distant and disinterested ruler.
The portrayal of Jesus as the firstborn of the dead not only acclaims his resurrection, but also guarantees the resurrection of those who will follow him into death. Christ is the kind of king who shares all of his privileges with others.
Crucified King is clearly the image that reinterprets all other images. It strips from the notion of king all honor and glory that flow merely from pride of office rather than from the exercise of dedicated leadership. For the sake of his sheep Jesus willingly endured humiliation and death. Nailed to the cross, his outstretched arms embraced women and men from every corner of the world. In his own body the created world was beaten down, only to rise again in glory. As head of the Church he became a victim so those who constitute his body could be spared many of the horrors he willingly endured. Finally, having conquered death by dying himself, he entrusts to all people the power of the resurrection.
It’s ironic that in the Gospel today, the crucified Jesus is ridiculed by the rulers of Jewish people, the roman soldiers, and criminals hanging there for being who he really is, Christ the King. The idea is that if he were the Christ, if he was truly King, he wouldn’t find himself in such a position. But these images from Scripture reveal that he is a different kind of messiah, whose kingdom is utterly beyond our world’s comprehension.
As we contemplate the mystery of Christ and celebrate his Kingship under these many portraits today, let us finally consider the example of St. Dismas, the good thief, who hung on the cross next to Jesus. As he called out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he gave us an example for seeing Christ the King in a deeper way because he saw Jesus with the eyes of faith. Indeed, in the last words of the Gospel, words with which the entire Liturgical Year is brought to completion, Jesus opens the gates of his kingdom to all those who profess faith in him truly as Christ the King, promising: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”